Monday, 11 May 2009

Among US collectors, "guys with metal detectors" win respect...

In Monday's Washington Post (just coincidentally of course on the same day as the ACCG announced the stunt they pulled with the coins) appeared a front page (!) article by Mary Jordan called " In Britain, Guys With Metal Detectors Find Respect Along With History", Washington Post Foreign Service Monday, May 11, 2009). So-called "metal detecting" certainly seems to be doomed to attract the quaintsy headlines. A fairly unexciting and totally derivative but equally misleading piece, trotting out the same cliches as we see in previous pro-collecting media claptrap.

One innovation caught my eye: "British authorities estimate there are about 10,000 metal-detecting enthusiasts". That's the first I've heard of it. This is my estimate - based on information from metal detector dealers concerning market research - and one which the Portable Antiquities Scheme has steadfastly refused to accept. Nice to know that the Washington Post accepts the estimate as "authoritative". What we really need however are not estimates but firm figures.

The Washington Post's journalist trots out the "the vast majority are responsible people who obey the law", topos. The Heritage Action erosion counter - which somehow seems to have escaped her notice says something else if we measure responsibility by reporting reportable finds. Since she persists in confusing "Britain/UK" with "England and Wales", let it be noted (as I have noted here before) that adding Scotland (also part of the UK) to the equation does not do much to improve the impression.

I also noted the description of a Welsh Finds Liaison Officer's office "His office is cluttered with labeled plastic bags full of items brought to him by collectors, most of whom are men, he said". Slapped wrist for that journalist for breaking the "pc code". You are not allowed to call them "collectors", they wish to be referred to by the more anorakish title "metal detectorists"... Calling a spade a spade bursts the bubble of illusion they build around the real nature and effects of the hobby.

Then there's the slippery statistics beloved of the pro-collecting lobby: "Before museum archaeologists began working with metal detector enthusiasts a decade ago, only about 25 reported discoveries annually met the official definition of "treasure" -- [...] Every year since, that number has soared, hitting 802 last year". This is partly because when the Treasure Act was passed in 1996, the DEFINITION of Treasure changed ! By the way, in Britain museum archaeologists were working with metal detectorists well before 1996, while the statistics are currently suppressed, extraopolation from the data which does exist in the public domain suggests that the scale of co-operation was at a relatively high level (see the forthcoming book I've co-authored).

It is a shame the journalist does not discuss the place of commercial "metal detecting rallies" in a text with its all-too-typical rose-tinted spectacled perspective on this manner of use of the archaeological resource in the UK.

People mentioned in the Washington Post article: Derek Eveleigh and grandson (artefact hunter and collector), Roger Bland (Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum), Nessa O'Connor (archaeological curator at the National Museum of Ireland), Mark Lodwick (FLO, National Museum Wales, Cardiff), Trevor Austin (general secretary for the National Council for Metal Detecting - interestingly not the Chairman), Dick Stout, (US Federation of Metal Detector and Archaeological Clubs). Which group did the journalist NOT ask for an opinion to create her article? Whose idea was that - who put her in touch with the people in the UK?

This is hardly a brilliant piece of investigative journalism. It is clearly an article written to order to prove a thesis - "Saddam has weapomns of mass destruction aimed at YOU", "metal detecting is good for the heritage"....

I was interested to see that Peter Tompa referring to the article suggests: "Perhaps, this system can also be applied here in the US in some fashion". I am getting really disturbed by the number of times that Peter Tompa and I seem to be agreeeing these days. This is exactly what I have suggested, before the portable antiquity collectors of the United States of America try to impose the collector-friendly "British (sic) System" on the rest of the world, let them campaign for the scrapping of the the existing archaeological resource protection legislation of the USA in favour of the free-for-all of the British legislation. Let their arrowhead collectors gather their collectables freely from Indian and Federal lands, let their pot diggers and grave riflers have a free hand to supply collectors all over the USA with prehistoric goodies, it is after all the heritage of everybody in the land - indeed all of us. If the collectors are so sure of their case, let's see those Native American ceramic products on eBay. Why be "retentionist" about it? But instead of talk, let's see the collectors' rights movement in the US do something about this proposition. Only then can they try to lead the world to a collectors' paradise by their own example, not at the expense of the British heritage.

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